Among many of Thai festivals and events, I was particularly fascinated by Surim Elephant Round-up, and felt lucky it was happening during my stay in the country.
At the time (2015) there wasn’t much information on the Internet about it, so it wasn’t easy to find the actual dates and plan – just that it was happening on the second weekend of November. I ended up missing one of the main festival’s events, because of that. There is a whole Wikipedia article, about it, so I’m not repeating – only sharing some personal impressions and essential information.
I traveled from Ayutthaya to Surim by train. People coming from Bangkok (480 km away) can either take the train, which takes slightly longer (8h) or the bus (around 7h) There is an overnight bus, arriving near 4 a.m, but I know nothing about its safety and comfort. From Ayutthaya, the trip takes around 5 hours, which isn’t much. However, the first one departs around seven, arriving past 12. As I did it on a Friday, I missed the elephant arrival procession and following banquet, which had already taken place in the morning. For this one, expect around 300 elephants, and nearly 50 tons of food.
The festival lasts for over a week, but all the main events happen on the first weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings there are the shows at the Elephant Stadium, contiguous to Si Narong Stadium, South of town.
(Update: Friday and Saturday evenings, there are light and sound shows with music, dance, and historical reenactments at Prasat Si Koraphum, a 13th century Khmer temple located a 30-minute drive outside of Surin. I found this info, years later, so don’t really know if it’s still happening and how it is.)
As for the shows: There is a free area, on both sides of the stadium stands. For that one, you must arrive early as only the first row gets a sort of clear view. Be prepared to stand for about three hours under the sun. -that’s how long it takes. For the stands, there are different price tickets depending if on the middle or on the sides, with is indifferent. You want to stay on the higher seats, the only shady ones. The remaining are unbearably hot, as the white walls reflect the sunlight. So, if you get yourself a central spot un a low area, you’ve made a bad deal. The best ones (for price) are the top sides. If possible, stay in the South stand as you’ll have the sunlight in your back. Buy them in advance or ask hour hotel to do it for your (and expect to pay a high commission).
During these 3 hours, it can be a bit boring. There were interesting parts: when hundreds of students play traditional music instruments and dance; also when they enact a battle between Thai and Khmer armies (if I understood it correctly); the initial presentation, when all elephants and mahouts fill the stadium.
Other parts, like elephant soccer playing and hula-hops, I found quite uninteresting. Anyway, the overall show, is a must-see. I attended both (Saturday and Sunday), despite being the same show, to be able to shoot from different angles. A slightly longer tele (300 mm) would have done wonders, I didn’t have it yet.
At the end of the shows, people are encouraged to take pictures with the animals, for a small fee.
Apart from the show, there is an adjacent area (around the Athletics stadium and before that one) with some food and attractions, nothing too fancy, but good enough for some food and spending time. Every now and then, mahouts will show up with their elephants, encouraging people to spend 20 Baht for feeding them.
I had mixed feelings about this. Elephants, of course, didn’t seem too happy. …But then again, the Kuy (the name of the Surin residents) have always been mahouts and elephant hunters and their tradition is as deeply routed as horse riding is on the Western world.
Maybe they’re not as “humane” as some thing they should be, but that’s their life, their culture and their land. Feel free to attend it or not, but refrain from judging.
If you decide to go, it’s better to book your room, as near as possible from the festival area. Streets will be absolutely crowded, specially during evenings, and walking is, pretty much, the only way to reach the area. Also be ready to quit drinking, at least for those days, as alcohol is strictly forbidden.